A week to be wicked, p.9
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.9
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 9

 

  “That would cost a fortune. ”

  He shrugged. “When it comes to travel, I have conditions. I don’t ride in coaches, and I don’t travel by night. ”

  “No night travel either? But the fastest coaches all travel by night. The journey would take us twice as long. ”

  “Then it’s a good thing we’re not going, isn’t it?”

  She lifted the candle and peered into his face. “You’re just making excuses. You want out of our agreement—”

  “What agreement? There was never any agreement. ”

  “—so you’re plucking these ridiculous ‘conditions’ out of the air. ” She ticked items off on one hand. “No closed carriages. No travel by night. What kind of grown man has such rules?”

  “One who narrowly survived a carriage accident,” he said testily. “At night. That’s what kind. ”

  Her face softened. So did her voice. “Oh. ”

  Colin drummed his fingers on the stone. He’d forgotten that she wouldn’t know this. In London, everyone knew. The story passed around ballrooms and gaming hells every season. Skipped from matron to debutante, gambler to opera singer—always in mournful whispers. Have you heard about poor Lord Payne. . . .

  “Was this recent?” she asked.

  “No, long ago. ”

  “What happened?”

  Sighing roughly, he rested his head against the uneven, clammy stone. “I was a boy, traveling with my parents. An axle snapped, and the coach overturned. I survived the accident largely unharmed. But my mother and father weren’t so fortunate. ”

  “They were injured?”

  “They died. There, in the carriage, right in front of me. My father went almost instantly. My mother, slowly and in tremendous agony. ” He paused. “I couldn’t get out, you see. The way the carriage had landed on its side, the door was barred shut. I couldn’t run for help, couldn’t escape. I lay trapped there, all night long. Alone. A passing farmer found me the next morning. ”

  There. That would teach her to press him for honesty.

  “Oh. ” She gripped his arm. “Oh God. I’m so sorry. I can see why you’d be afra— er, why you would dislike dark, enclosed spaces. How dreadful. ”

  “It was. Exceedingly. ” He rubbed his temple. “Suffice it to say, I’ve no desire to relive such a situation. So I have a few simple rules. I don’t travel at night. I don’t ride in enclosed carriages. Oh, and I don’t sleep alone. ” A grimace tugged his mouth sideways. “That last is less of a rule and more a statement of fact. ”

  “How do you mean?”

  Colin hesitated briefly. He’d revealed this much. There seemed no point in denying the rest. “I simply don’t sleep alone. If I don’t have a bed companion, I lie awake all night. ”

  He nudged toward the soft heat of her body and gathered the blanket close around them. “So you may want to rethink your plans, pet. If we did undertake this journey . . . I’d need you in my bed. ”

  Chapter Five

  Somewhere in the back of the cave, a drip counted out Minerva’s stunned silence.

  One, two, three . . .

  . . . ten, eleven, twelve . . .

  He needed her? In his bed? It was too much to be believed. She reminded herself it wasn’t her he needed. Apparently, any woman would do.

  “So you’re telling me that this accident . . . this tragic night in your youth . . . is the reason for your libertine ways?”

  “Yes. This is my curse. ” He gave a deep, resonant sigh. A sigh clearly meant to pluck at her heartstrings.

  And it worked. It really worked.

  “Sweet heaven. ” She swallowed back a lump in her throat. “You must do this all the time. Night after night, you tell women your tale of woe . . . ”

  “Not really. The tale of woe precedes me. ”

  “ . . . and then they just open their arms and lift their skirts for you. ‘Come, you poor, sweet man, let me hold you’ and so forth. Don’t they?”

  He hedged. “Sometimes. ”

  Minerva knew they did. They must. She felt it happening to her. As he’d related his story, a veritable fount of emotion had welled in her chest. Sadness, sympathy. Her womb somehow became involved, sending nurturing impulses coursing through her veins. Everything feminine in her responded to the call.

  Then came the lies. Her heart told her lies. Wicked, insidious falsehoods, resounding with every beat.

  He’s a broken man.

  He needs you.

  You can heal him.

  Rationally, she knew better. Untold numbers of women had already tried their hands—among other body parts—at “healing his broken soul,” with no success.

  And yet . . . although her mind knew it to be foolishness, her body ached with the desire to hold him. Soothe him.

  “I can’t believe this,” she breathed, mostly to herself. “I can’t believe you’re working this spell on me. ”

  “I’m not working any spell. I’m giving you the facts. Aren’t you fond of those? If you’re harboring any thought of compelling me to make this journey, you should know my conditions. I don’t ride in coaches, which means I’d be on horseback all day. I can’t ride on horseback all day unless I’m sleeping well at night. And I don’t sleep alone. Ergo, you’d have to share my bed. Unless you’d prefer me to search out random serving girls at each coaching inn. ”

  A wave of nausea rocked her. “Ugh. ”

  “Honestly, I don’t relish the thought either. Bedding my way along the Great North Road might have sounded like a grand time five years ago. Not so much, anymore. ” He cleared his throat. “Nowadays, it’s more the rest I’m after. I don’t even bed half the women I sleep with. If that makes sense. ”

  “If that makes sense? Nothing about this makes sense. ”

  “You don’t have to understand it. God knows, I don’t. ”

  She sat next to him, reclining against the wall. Beneath the blanket, their arms touched. Even through that slight contact, she could sense the restlessness in his body. He was struggling to conceal his unease, but after years of vigilance with an asthmatic sister, Minerva was acutely attuned to small signs of distress. She couldn’t ignore the raspy quality of his breathing, nor the way his muscles hummed with a desperate wish to be quit of the place.

  And when presented with a complexity, she wasn’t the sort to give up on understanding it. She was a scientist, after all.

  “Is it just the cave?” she asked. “Or is it like this every night?”

  He didn’t answer.

  “You say it’s persisted since childhood. Is it getting better or worse with time?”

  “I’d rather not discuss it. ”

  “Oh. All right. ”

  How sad, that he suffered so. How pathetic, that he turned to an endless chain of women to ameliorate his suffering. The idea made her nauseous. Irrationally envious. And just a little flushed, beneath her bathing costume.

  A question burned inside her. She couldn’t help but ask. “Who was she, the other night? It wouldn’t matter, except . . . ” Except whoever she was, she has the power to make my life utter misery.

  After a moment, he reluctantly answered. “Ginny Watson. ”

  “Oh. ” Minerva knew the cheery young widow. She took in washing from the rooming-house residents. Apparently, she took in washing—and other things—from the castle residents, too. But she didn’t seem the sort to spread tales.

  “It didn’t mean anything,” he said.

  “But don’t you see? That’s the worst part. ” She moved away from the wall and turned to face him. The wet fabric of her bathing costume scraped over the rough stone. “Insomnia isn’t an uncommon condition, you know. Surely there must be some solution. If you can’t sleep at night, why don’t you light some lamps? Read some books. Warm some milk. See a doctor for a sleeping powder. ”

  “Those aren’t new ideas. I’ve tried them all, and then
some. ”

  “And nothing works?”

  Those drips counted the silence again. One, two, three . . .

  He trailed a light touch up her arm. Then—slowly—he leaned forward.

  And whispered in her ear, “One thing works. ”

  His lips brushed her cheek.

  Minerva stiffened. Her every nerve ending jumped to attention. She didn’t know whether to be appalled or thrilled that he would make her another link in his amatory chain.

  Appalled, she told herself. She ought to be appalled.

  “You are shameless,” she whispered. “I can’t believe this. ”

  “It’s rather a shock to me, too. ” His lips grazed her jaw. “But you are a most surprising girl. ”

  “You’re being opportunistic. ”

  “I won’t deny it. Why don’t you seize the opportunity, as well? I want to kiss you. And you need kissing, desperately. ”

  She put a hand to his shoulder and pushed him away. The cave filled with her affronted silence. “Why would you suggest such a thing?”

  “Because last night you wanted to kiss me back. But you didn’t know how. ”

  Her heart jumped into her throat. So mortifying. How could he tell?

  Wordlessly, he removed the spectacles from her face, folded them, and set them aside.

  “I can’t believe this,” she breathed.

  “So you keep saying. ” He inched closer, eliminating the distance between them. “But you know, Matilda, what you haven’t said?”

  “What’s that?”

  “You haven’t said no. ”

  He reached for her in the dark, skimming a touch over her cheek, sliding down to cup her chin. With his hand anchored there, he stroked his thumb in ever-widening circles, until he grazed her bottom lip.

  “You have a mouth made for kissing,” he murmured, angling her to face him. “Did you know that?”

  She shook her head.

  “So soft and generous. ” Leaning in, he tipped her chin with the heel of his hand. “Sweet. ”

  “No man’s ever called me sweet. ”

  “Has any other man kissed you?”

  Again, she gave a little shake of the head.

  “Well, then. That’s why. ” He brushed his lips over hers, just lightly, sending pure sensation fizzing through her veins. He hummed with satisfaction. “You taste of ripe plums. ”

  She couldn’t help it. She laughed. “Now that’s just absurd. ”

  “Why?”

  “Because it’s too early in the year for ripe plums. ”

  His husky chuckle shook them both. “You’re entirely too logical for your own good. A thorough kissing can mend that. ”

  “I don’t want mending. ”

  “Perhaps not. But I think you do want kissing. ” He nuzzled the curve of her cheek, and his voice dropped to a sensual whisper. “Don’t you?”

  She did. Oh, she did.

  She couldn’t deny it. Not when he touched her like this. She wanted to be kissed, and to kiss him in return. She wanted to touch him, stroke him, hold him tight. All those tender, nurturing impulses still pulsed within her, despite all her efforts to reason them away. Her heart kept pumping those lies through her body.

  He needs you.

  You can heal him.

  She had feminine warmth in abundance, and he needed comfort right now. In return, she could glimpse what it felt like to be needed. To be kissed. To be called sweet, and compared to a ripened plum.

  To be desired by a desirable man.

  “Just this once?” she breathed.

  “Just this once. ”

  So long as they both knew it was all mere diversion . . . a harmless way to pass the time . . . It couldn’t hurt to pretend, could it? Not in secret, in the dark.
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